BDS, the Modern Language Association and War

Before going on hiatus, I published an extended essay called Like Romans that looks at the fight against BDS (and pro-Israel activism generally) through the lens of warfare.

The starting point for that work was not academic analysis based on abstract principles.  Rather, I tried to connect dots between the results of work done by heroic on-the-ground activists who have been experimenting with different ways to defeat the propaganda campaign traveling under the banner of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.  And few experiments have been as successful (and thus as informative) as the recent defeat of academic boycott resolutions at the Modern Language Association (MLA).

As most readers probably know, academic associations have become a battleground for BDS activity, ever since the American Studies Association (ASA) became the largest academic group to pass a resolution calling for a boycott of their Israeli counterparts.  Some very tiny associations (including those representing Asian-American, Women’s and Native American studies) have passed similar resolutions before and since.  But their victory with ASA gave BDS activists the belief that it was just a matter of time before their program swept through large swaths of the academy.

Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for us – as well as for academia in general) all efforts to drag fields like history, anthropology, and even Middle East studies into the BDS swamp have failed.  But the large (25,000-member) Modern Language Association, professional home to professors of language and literature, has been the boycotter’s coveted prize for years.

The strategy the BDSers pursue within academic associations is a variation on what they do everywhere else (a playbook outlined in Chapter 9 of Like Romans): take over the decision-making machinery of an association, propose anti-Israel resolutions before the wider membership knows what’s going on, restrict communication so that only supporters of a boycott get access to members, and do everything possible to rig a vote so that the barest majority of a minority can pass something that can then be passed off as the will of the organization (if not the entire discipline).

And if the boycotters fail, then it’s try try again as the same resolutions (possibly with superficial variations) are proposed year after year until members finally do what they’re told.

While there are a number of strategies and tactics one can choose when dealing with an enemy that outnumbers your own forces (as was the case at MLA), it is generally impossible to defeat a foe if you’ve got nothing on the ground.  Fortunately, years of battling BDS within MLA (and academic associations generally) led to the creation of a small but highly skilled force under the name of MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights which managed to not just defeat this year’s proto-boycott resolutions, but get an anti-boycott resolution passed in its place.

The number of things this group did right began with the nature of the group itself.  Members were internal to the organization (which gave them credibility and deep understanding of MLA’s culture), and having battled the BDS plague within academia for many years, they were skilled veterans able to leverage previous experience and contacts.

Their background knowledge included understanding their own strengths (the aforementioned credibility and experience) and weaknesses (like limited influence over the administrative machinery of MLA), as well as those of their enemies (such as fanaticism, predictability and a tendency towards overreach).   Most importantly, they understood the field of battle: an academic association where the majority of members don’t have strong opinions about the Middle East (even if the general zeitgeist of the academy might go against Israel), but who do care about scholarship and the reputation of the humanities in the wider culture.

With this understanding in place, their communication strategy focused on the appalling lack of scholarship represented by pro-BDS “research,” and the impact an academic boycott vote would have not on Israel, but on MLA, the fields of humanities, and the academy as a whole.  Thus they were able to avoid getting dragged into a debate on the Middle East (the BDSers preferred terrain), and make the vote a referendum on MLA’s own scholarly reputation.

Clever tactics also allowed the group to use their minority position to advantage, finding alternative mechanisms to communicate with MLA members that avoided going through leaders who had already proven themselves to be dishonest brokers.  They were then able to use their need to find these alternative communication channels to illustrate those leaders’ lack of integrity, while fitting themselves into a storyline of rebels speaking truth to power.

Finally, the choice to propose both an anti-boycott resolution and a second resolution condemning Palestinians for violating academic rights meant that voting against boycotts generally became the middle-of-the-road (usually preferred) position.  While there were some complaints when the proposal condemning the Palestinian Authority and Hamas was withdrawn after the anti-boycott measure won, in terms of tactics that second proposal was serving as a feint, withdrawal of which positioned anti-boycott activists as both moderate and magnanimous.

Not every anti-BDS effort has the fortune (and misfortune) of fighting a fight you know is coming years in advance against a foe whose tactics (and personnel) are well known and understood.  But any individual or group can learn lessons from the experience of other civic organizations fighting the same fight against the BDS propaganda war against Israel.  Like names, faces and personalities; strategies and tactics will be different from situation to situation.  But there are common elements to fighting a war, the first of which is to recognize you are in one.

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One Response to BDS, the Modern Language Association and War

  1. Barbara Mazor January 25, 2017 at 12:28 am #

    I am so glad you linked to Cary Nelson’s masterful “The BDS Disinformation Campaign” at Fathom Journal (click on “appalling lack of scholarship”).

    It is quite long (I needed 3 days to read it.) But anyone involved in anti-BDS work needs to read this to see how information is distorted an misused.

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